Is This the Best Bird Photography Lens?

Is This the Best Bird Photography Lens?

Birds are notoriously difficult to photograph, because they're flighty (pun intended) and far away. Fixed focal length telephoto lenses are great at cropping in close to your feathered friends, but the decent, sharp lenses are incredibly expensive. They also restrict your composition, which is why the Nikkor 80-400mm lens may just be the best bird photography lens in the world.

A bigger reach in bird photography means the difference between a good shot and a wimpy snap. A long telephoto lens will fill the frame without having to move closer to the subject, and the extra focal length increases perspective compression, which flatteringly isolates the bird from the background. Chances are, if you've shot with a telephoto lens that wasn't quite long enough, you'll know how frustrating it is when the subject is perfectly positioned but you're not close enough.

Bird too small in the frame

Spot the birdie! Yes, there is a bird in this photo, no I didn't have a lens that was long enough to capture it, despite being just a few metres away

It's Much Cheaper Than Prime Alternatives

If you're shooting full-frame and want to get a 400mm reach, you're either going to try an extender on the lens you already have, in which you'll find the scene gets too dark, or you'll want to purchase a nice prime, which will set you back several thousand dollars. That's why, in my opinion, the Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6G ED VR is the best bird photography lens for the money at a touch over $2000 (or significantly cheaper pre-owned).

Canon 400mm f4 L lens

The Canon EF 400mm f/4 DO IS II USM lens may be lightweight and sharp, but its fixed focal length limits its use for bird photography, and it is eye-wateringly expensive for the average photographer at $6,899.

The Focal Length Range Is Super Useful

Nikon's 80-400mm comes into its own when you need flexibility. If you're lucky enough to get a bird come closer to you, that 400mm lens is going to be useless, because it'll either not focus close enough or the bird will be too big in the frame to be useful. The more flexible you are in your approach to wildlife photography, the more opportunities you can create, so this adaptability in focal length is crucial.

Bird composition framing

As this female blackbird moved closer to me I had to zoom further out on the 80-400mm lens until I was at 80mm, which was just wide enough to frame the bird nicely

Brilliant Optics Provide Blindingly Sharp Results

It's not just about filling the frame but capturing a shot that's sharp and detailed. I've been shooting birds with this lens for several years now, and I'm still astounded by how sharp it really is. I've never had an issue with chromatic aberration either, even when shooting up against the sky. Focusing is always tack-sharp, and I am only ever let down by my clumsy trigger finger. The Vibration Reduction (VR) offers three stops of stabilization, which is more than enough to keep everything steady, even when tracking on a gimbal.

Sharpness of 80-400mm

The lens is so sharp I sometimes find myself desharpening when it comes to close shots where feathers are jagged or under contrasty lighting, which is especially evident on the neck feathers of this wood pigeon.

The only downside is the lens' ability to focus closely, which only comes down to about 1.75 m. Sure, other 100-400mm lenses do focus more closely, but in realistic terms, when was the last time you were less than two meters away from a shy bird? It might be more important to have close focusing abilities when it comes to sports photography, but not so much in the bird world. The focusing is also speedy, especially when you can engage the infinity to 6m switch to limit the focusing so it doesn't hunt from minimum to maximum points.

Overall, I love this lens and have yet to find a more flexible, reasonably priced, sharp lens for bird photography. But perhaps you've had a different experience? Or maybe there's a lens that I haven't mentioned that you love for birds. If so, share your thoughts with us down below.

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38 Comments

Tony Northrup's picture

Are you using an APS-C body? Just wondering because I've almost never found 600mm on a full-frame body to be too much zoom for birds in the wild. Even when using a blind and extension tubes to focus closer, it's really rare to fill the frame @ 600mm. The only times I can think of were larger birds that had become accustomed to people, like a Great Blue Heron in a park.

Corné van Oosterhout's picture

Depends a lot on how you work, I shoot all my photos on ff with a 200-400mm, and kingfishers are very small birds (Alcedo atthis). Sometime I crop my images a bit, but most of the time I don't even need the 400mm. But I never 'walk around', I also plan my shots from a hide. This p.e. was shot with 85mm.

nitinchandra's picture

No zoom or magnification (for macros) will ever be enough. Patience and practice can work most of the time though...

Rogier van V's picture

Went on a trip to China with this lens combined with the D750 and I really loved it, though walking around I wouldn't have minded some extra mm's, have to make some large crops to get good size pictures out of em.

jim hughes's picture

Good post and I'd say yes, this is the sort of lens you want. Also, what Tony said: APS-C is your friend. 400 on APS-C, plus luck and persistence, will get some good shots. 500mm will get more but it's getting difficult to hold and steady the lens, even with a monopod and a gimbal.

As always it's good to think about the purpose of a photo: I sell a few bird shots on cards and prints but they're mostly just to impress my friends. And what makes people like a bird photo? I'd say it's a sense of closeness.

And especially eye contact. I have a blog post about that:

https://jimhphoto.com/index.php/2020/01/07/birds-eyes/

Dan Barthel's picture

400 is way too short even on APS-C. I've been out with Artie Morris, a ledgended bird photographer and watched him with a 600+1.4+2.0x extenders. Personally I use a 500 f4 with a 1.4x extender.

Tom Reichner's picture

I agree that 400mm is far too short for most situations that most bird photographers find themselves shooting in.

There is a reason why most of the world's most successful, widely published bird photographers use 600mm and longer much more often than they use shorter focal lengths.

Sure, one can come up with exceptions, and mention situations where people get incredible images of wild birds with short (even wide angle) lenses, but by and large, the vast majority of paid-for-and-published wild bird photos are taken with true supertelephotos.

Ben Harris's picture

The best is a big call. Best budget perhaps, but even then I would be saying the Tamron 150-600 G2 is better bang for the buck, especially because 600mm is far more useful than 400mm.

Jon Kellett's picture

I needed more reach than 400mm for a trip I was planning. Tried the Sigma 150-600 and both the G1 and G2 Tamron. Then I tried the Sony 200-600 - No hesitation handing over the credit card.

The Tamron G2 was a good lens, but the Sony seems otherworldly. I took a snapshot of a magpie while out walking. Handheld 600mm at 1/50th of a second... Sharp as. Boring snapshot, but sharp.

Ben Harris's picture

The Sony is one heck of a lens. I can’t believe that shot is 1/50th.
I wish Canon had a comparable lens.

Jon Kellett's picture

The keeper rate below 1/125 isn't great, but it is doable.

It's not that much heavier than a Canon 70-200 f/2.8 (formerly my fav lens) and only a little longer.

alice taylor's picture

Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L Telephoto Lens (Most Popular Wildlife Lens) The Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS USM Telephoto Zoom Lens continues to be a favorite of wildlife and bird photographers around the world. Canon created this lens to be a smart and fast lens capable of quick and precise autofocus.

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Andy Work's picture

I like the reach of a 150-600mm on an APS-C body for detail.

Cart Shay's picture

I don't really agree with this. Bird photography, unless you're doing environmental portraits of a close by crane, never needs such a wide mm. Maybe you can argue 150mm, but 80mm is just something I'm wasting money on. And if you're getting a zoom, don't stop at 400mm. 400mm is a great focal length, but the bird can still be too far away and 600mm will be your best friend. I shoot m4/3 so I don't know the lense selection, but I believe there are respectable 200-600mm lenses, right?

Michael Engshun's picture

Any of the modern 100-400s, including Sigma and Tamrons, are excellent for what they are - good for fairly portable birding. Toneh already addressed the issue with 400 being short, unless coupled with an extender, but then you lose a lot of light on top of the 5.6/6.3 apertures of these lenses.
But the answer to the article's question is pretty resoundingly no. And it also smacks of a Nikon ad masked as a pseudo article because, as noted already, most modern 100-400s are in the same general ballpark in specs and quality. The last paragraph doesn't help the cause - why aren't you (the writer) doing the work to review other lenses?
They are well known. Why just Nikon?

Michael Engshun's picture

Any of the modern 100-400s, including Sigma and Tamrons, are excellent for what they are - good for fairly portable birding. Toneh already addressed the issue with 400 being short, unless coupled with an extender, but then you lose a lot of light on top of the 5.6/6.3 apertures of these lenses.
But the answer to the article's question is pretty resoundingly no. And it also smacks of a Nikon ad masked as a pseudo article because, as noted already, most modern 100-400s are in the same general ballpark in specs and quality. The last paragraph doesn't help the cause - why aren't you (the writer) doing the work to review other lenses?
They are well known. Why just Nikon?

Michael Engshun's picture

Any of the modern 100-400s, including Sigma and Tamrons, are excellent for what they are - good for fairly portable birding. Toneh already addressed the issue with 400 being short, unless coupled with an extender, but then you lose a lot of light on top of the 5.6/6.3 apertures of these lenses.
But the answer to the article's question is pretty resoundingly no. And it also smacks of a Nikon ad masked as a pseudo article because, as noted already, most modern 100-400s are in the same general ballpark in specs and quality. The last paragraph doesn't help the cause - why aren't you (the writer) doing the work to review other lenses?
They are well known. Why just Nikon?

Michael Engshun's picture

Any of the modern 100-400s, including Sigma and Tamrons, are excellent for what they are - good for fairly portable birding. Toneh already addressed the issue with 400 being short, unless coupled with an extender, but then you lose a lot of light on top of the 5.6/6.3 apertures of these lenses.
But the answer to the article's question is pretty resoundingly no. And it also smacks of a Nikon ad masked as a pseudo article because, as noted already, most modern 100-400s are in the same general ballpark in specs and quality. The last paragraph doesn't help the cause - why aren't you (the writer) doing the work to review other lenses?
They are well known. Why just Nikon?

Michael Engshun's picture

Any of the modern 100-400s, including Sigma and Tamrons, are excellent for what they are - good for fairly portable birding. Toneh already addressed the issue with 400 being short, unless coupled with an extender, but then you lose a lot of light on top of the 5.6/6.3 apertures of these lenses.
But the answer to the article's question is pretty resoundingly no. And it also smacks of a Nikon ad masked as a pseudo article because, as noted already, most modern 100-400s are in the same general ballpark in specs and quality. The last paragraph doesn't help the cause - why aren't you (the writer) doing the work to review other lenses?
They are well known. Why just Nikon?

Paul Asselin's picture

Michael, I think you made your point.

John Kelsey's picture

What kind of jerk repeats his comment 5 times..Seems to me you are fairly insecure about your non-Nikon gear...

Martin Boaring's picture

But he repeated his comment only 4 times — so, not such a jerk after all.

Fristen Lasten's picture

Does the incognito get up work in conjunction with a blind? Or is it effective on its own?

Randall Huleva's picture

Actually I prefer the Nikon 200-500 f/5,6 for a few reasons when birding. First and foremost...it is considerably less expensive...$1400 for the 200-500 vs $2300 for the 80-400 (MSRP - less expensive sale prices can usually be found). However what difference does cost make if it doesn’t perform well, right?

Well, when birding, I find I need more length than wide angle capability, so trading off the 80 to 200 range I would likely not use anyway for the addition of the 400 to 500 range that I would use regularly seems like a worthwhile compromise.

When I couple that lens with my D750 I get mostly sharp images but they are sometimes a little soft around the edges. However this is where an APS-C body really makes a huge difference. Not only does the
“crop factor” extend my focal length to a maximum 750mm, but it also crops off all of those sometimes annoying soft edges. I am left with just the pristine, sharp image I envisioned when I shot the frame.

If you want to step up a little bit higher yet, pair your 200-500 with the amazing Nikon D500 and get the additional benefits of the advanced auto-focus system and high speed (10 FPS) shutter due to the large buffer and high speed XQD/SD UHS-II memory cards. This is, in my opinion, the finest body/lens combination available for bird and/or aircraft photography.

Unfortunately it’s not all good news. The 200-500 does come in about 2.5” longer and approximately 25 ozs heavier than the 80-400. If you are someone who has a particular use case where the additional length or weight may be a problem, the 80-400 may be a good choice for you.

Mark Winterstein's picture

If we're talking telephoto zooms with reach, I think the Sigma 60-600 is a fantastic lens. 900-960 on crop is very healthy.

Chris Grayson's picture

I know we are talking zooms, but my Nikkor 300mm f4 PF is stunning when linked to a Nikon D7200 and probably better when I get round to buying a used Nikon D500. This is not a Nikon advert, but the low weight and compactness is unbelievable and the sharpness a given on a prime. It links well with the 1.4 and even the 1.7, but not the 2.0. For birding, a good APS-C body and a lightweight prime is unbeatable, even if in a hide up against the giant camoflauge covered zooms, I look like I am using a consumer camera linked to a totally inadequate sized telephoto!

Zach Ashcraft's picture

Birds aren't real

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